Q: How does complexity change how we need to lead?

A: A critical need when making decisions in these difficult times comes from complexity science. There are at least three critical considerations: complex systems as organisms, unknowns and emergent properties, and new prominence of learning.

Complex adaptive systems follow many laws of nature. Human systems are organisms in continual evolution and change as they adapt to their environments and the interactive dynamics among their elements. So daily there are numerous interactions among different parts of the system causing other effects in other parts of the system, all while the whole is adapting to varieties of environmental influences. It’s impossible to “measure” or know all interactions and outcomes. It requires more nonlinear thinking than simple cause-effect thinking.

Consequently, complex systems have emergent properties, as new outcomes are always occurring. Some can be controlled, but most can’t. The cumulative effects of many interactive dynamics inside and external to the system are infinite and mostly unknowable. Again, this leads to considering scenarios we can imagine and being ready to see, adapt and learn from the ones we could not foresee.

The levels of unknowns from the operation of complexity requires continual learning in order to be able to react wisely. In these systems, it helps to have more open, flowing connections across the system, with information flow and rapid feedback loops; and keeping diverse thinking readily available, shared and not oppressed. These practices keep open the possibilities to experiment. All of this helps to keep transparency for all. These are needed when change is rapid and challenges are new.

Complex systems self-organize in pursuing their purposes, and leaders are generally trying to move the system in desired directions. Both processes create patterns of behavior that influence what happens next. It’s therefore important that both processes need to be in sync or further chaos can emerge.

This will change our mind-set on leading change. We can’t manage change but can direct, guide and support change in desired directions.


David W. Jamieson is a professor of organization development and change at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.